Philadelphia: A Brief History

Not long ago the thonkingly huge history of New York in the early twentieth century, Greater Gotham (Oxford University Press, 4.6 pounds), landed in bookstores. Suitable for pressing leaves or dropping upon large cockroaches from a great height, the book is the long-awaited sequel to the 1998 Gotham (Oxford University Press, 5.8 pounds), the history of New York from its founding to 1898. These are, obviously, substantial works about the history of the city, and regardless of its quality the new one is destined to end up, like its predecessor, imposingly displayed on bookshelves in apartments around the city, spines unbroken, unread because, given their length in these distracted times, unreadable.

Philadelphia had one of these too, though unlike the New York books it’s now out of print. Back in 1981, W.W. Norton released the 2.9-pound Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. The City of Brotherly Love has, for all its historical interest, taken a back seat in recent years to metropolitan histories from major publishers. If you’re not keen on a multi-year commitment to 1,000+ page narratives about New York, you can turn to the less daunting The Epic of New York City by Edward Robb Ellis (Basic Books, 1.2 pounds), but slimmer journeys through the history of Philadelphia, from its founding to the twenty-first century in which we find ourselves, can be hard to locate.

I raise a hosanna, then, for Roger D. Simon‘s revised and updated Philadelphia: A Brief History, the first edition of which was published by the Pennsylvania Historical Association in 2003 and the second edition of which was released in 2017 (Temple University Press, 9.9 ounces). A history professor at Lehigh University, Simon cites the Norton volume a great deal in the 15 pages of notes attached to his slim, 123 pages of text; this is very much a “just the high points” survey, but it fills a profound need for a Philadelphia history of this kind, and it’s likely to be the go-to brief history for this generation.

As the editors write in their foreword, “The book’s central premise [is] that Philadelphia’s story is about residents’ attempts to sustain economic prosperity while fulfilling community needs” — and so it’s a case study, really, in what every city attempts to balance. Through his chapter subtitles, Simon makes explicit his approach: “Establishing a Community/Building an Economy” (Beginnings to 1800), “Industry Triumphant/Civic Failure” (1865-1920), “Economic Decline/Community Turmoil” (1930-1980) all point to the quite American dilemma of civic ideals running dead up against business interests. And he is especially attentive to the racial and socioeconomic tensions that this dilemma produced.

Alas, the inner conflict continues. A few years ago, Philadelphia magazine posted “A Challenge to Our Most Influential Philadelphians,” an essay by Tom McGrath urging that Philadelphia’s business community take a harder look at its civic responsibilities to the city. With a sigh, I note that McGrath’s remedy seems to be, like that for other cities, a greater emphasis on “innovative entrepreneurism” or “entrepreneurial innovation” — meaningless marketspeak that seem to refer to a new emphasis on technology and the service industry — which promise no clear solution to Philadelphia’s problems with public education and infrastructure. This new emphasis may attract new business to the city (for example, the establishment of Amazon’s second national headquarters there), but that attraction will be founded on things like tax abatements and other gifts to business and corporations. Good for the upper-middle and middle classes of course; not so good, though, for most of the rest of the population, which will continue to be economically squeezed until those tax abatements expire. It would be better for Philadelphia if Amazon established new distribution warehouses in the city instead of a shiny glass corporate tower; at least then the company would create hundreds if not thousands of jobs for unskilled labor, jobs profoundly necessary for the health of urban neighborhoods and the marginalized formerly working-class workforce. There is enough warning in Simon’s book that such band-aids will create less, rather than more, affluence in the Philadelphia communities and neighborhoods that desperately need it.

The history of Philadelphia uniquely reflects the nation’s. Neither arose organically like the cities and nation-states of Europe; both were deliberately founded in the contexts of rebellion and escape from religious prejudice, and no other country in the world sets as one of its primary concerns the “pursuit of happiness” in its founding documents — a happiness that, perhaps inevitably, remains frustratingly out-of-reach for most of its citizens. For this reason alone, as well as for many others, the city’s history retains its relevance for the rest of us.

Simon’s writing is pellucidly clear, and the text is graced by several well-chosen illustrations and photographs, as well as a few instructive population tables at the end of the book. That said, Simon concludes with an ambivalent envoi:

[In 2016] more than four hundred thousand people survived on incomes below the poverty line. While the city became more diverse in the aggregate, it remained as segregated as ever at the neighborhood level. … The city had limited options to address community needs, particularly for its large impoverished population. … Business leadership seems preoccupied with Center City and reducing the taxes on business, but Philadelphia will be a successful community in the twenty-first century only if public and private capital invest in education, social welfare, and housing needs beyond the glamour of Center City.

From Simon’s book to the ears of Tom McGrath’s “Influentials,” one hopes. Not investment in technological innovation, but investment in innovative urban and community planning, will provide for a renaissance in Philadelphia, as Simon’s history suggests. In the meantime, lovers of Philadelphia can trace the historical possibilities of this renaissance — as well as more than a few cautionary tales — in Simon’s Philadelphia: A Brief History. It’s available now from Amazon.

Hide and seek

The idea of ruins — archaeological, architectural, cultural, even psychological — lies at the center of Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, published in November 2017 by Temple University Press; it’s a philosophical meditation masquerading as a coffee table book.

A handsome book it is, too. Photographer Joseph E.B. Elliott provides contemplative perspectives on a variety of public, semi-public, and commercial spaces in Philadelphia, many of them off-limits to the casual flâneur in the City of Brotherly Love; the accompanying text, by Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall, eschews a straightforwardly historical approach by considering the relationships between these spaces, their history, and their current uses and disuses.

Most books of Philadelphia history like this, boasting glamorous and unpeopled photographs of interiors and restored exteriors, concentrate on the colonial and early national eras of the 18th and early 19th century. The Hidden City authors turn their attention instead to the later 19th and early 20th centuries, finding the objects of their contemplation in churches both formal and informal; sewers and abandoned subway stations; municipal buildings, some like Philadelphia’s City Hall still abuzz with activity and some like Germantown’s  Town Hall in disuse; and prisons like Eastern State and Graterford, designed on the long-abandoned idea of the panopticon as a means of moral punishment.

The “ruin” in this book, though, is considered less as an attractive fragment than as a living object with a life of its own. “For Philadelphia seems to possess an exceptionally large number of places that have disappeared elsewhere — workshops and small factories, sporting clubs and societies, synagogues and theaters and railroad lines — like endangered species that have managed to stay alive in some remote forest or swamp,” Popkin and Woodall muse. Among the more telling passages are a visit to the remains of the International Peace Movement community that Bible-thumper Father Divine founded, along with the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street; the Church of the Gesú, site of a depressing and violent civil rights controversy in the 1940s; and a peek into the John Stortz and Son tool factory, founded in 1853 in Philadelphia’s Old City and, somewhat miraculously in this day and age, still flourishing and providing employment to machine workers and small craftsmen. An additional pleasure of the book is a long-overdue consideration of the monumental contributions that people of color and women made to the economic and cultural life of the city over the past 150 years.

As Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City peels back the layers of the past, it reveals more than ruins of buildings; it also reveals the ruins of certain habits of mind, of shared community values, reminders of the stresses and anxieties that made and continue to make Philadelphia a unique place in the world. Film directors like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch turned some of these same settings into nightmares, but that didn’t do them justice. The book gives them a new and glowing life. Every city has a different flavor, hard to define precisely and, because cities are always changing, always provisional. Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City is an essential bridge between past and present. Sure, it belongs on your coffee table. But make sure to read it, too.

NOTE: The book is the product of the ongoing Hidden City Philadelphia project; you can find its website here.

A toast to … Leon Redbone

This week I delighted in my daughters’ first launch into the field of nihilistic satire, then explained how it probably had a genetic origin.

Anybody who is aware of Leon Redbone is by this time similarly aware that the musician “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore” yesterday morning. I don’t have much to add to the obituaries and appreciations that have been appearing here and there (especially Megan Pugh’s exemplary profile of Redbone that appeared in March in the Oxford American). Two things worth noting, though: First, that Redbone was himself an anti-celebrity, whose self-conscious eccentricities served solely to foreground the early American music that seemed to be the love of his life; it’s a rare thing. Second, there is a vibrant if small subculture of other American musicians who are doing their best to keep this kind of music alive; Redbone was far from alone, if he was the most visible representative of this subculture. I recommend checking out these fine people.

Social media and the internet are littered with Redbone clips and tributes, so instead I offer something in his memory that I hope would meet with his approval, Laurel and Hardy’s performance of “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” one of Redbone’s signature songs, from their 1939 film The Flying Deuces; it’s a charming two-and-a-half minutes from the past, featuring Stan’s light and loose-limbed dance and Ollie’s very pleasant Georgia baritone. I’ll be lifting my glass to Mr. Redbone and Messrs. Laurel and Hardy at Cafe Katja this afternoon. See you there.

The good kind of corruption

The cover of a 1967 anthology I owned in my teen years.

While the roots of the literary genre of “black humor” lie in a variety of places (certainly many of Mark Twain’s novels, stories, and essays exhibit the dark, hallucinatory qualities associated with the genre; Jonathan Swift, Nathanael West, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline qualify for the label, and André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor, gathering more than 40 mostly French specimens, was published in 1940), it wasn’t until 1945 and the post-WWII era that it truly blossomed in the United States. Perhaps it was the development of the atomic bomb that led to a deeper sense of nihilism and pessimism; perhaps it was the increasingly consumerist nature of American culture and entertainment; perhaps it was the yawning gap between American ideals and American reality, becoming ever more obvious after the war, that inspired the writers who placed the absurd lengths to which hypocrisy could extend under their microscopes. Instead of subjecting this hypocrisy to handwringing sorrow, though, the genre subjected it to ridicule. If WWII was supposed to be a war that made the world safe for peace, love, and understanding, it was also a war that generated the weaponry that could destroy the entire human race, and the world it infested, in the space of just a few hours; in the meantime, the corruptions of the culture wormed their way into the hypocritical corruptions of Americans themselves, generating an almost desperate denial of the condition into which the race had contorted itself. The black humorists decided the only sane response was to laugh, especially at themselves, as guilty as the rest of the species.

As I noted yesterday, I blame myself for the corruption of my daughters, budding black humorists themselves; I blame my parents for my own corruption. Among my earliest memories is the night that my parents, wanting to save a few dollars on a babysitter, put my brother and I in the back seat of the car, then drove to a local drive-in theater to see Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Of course, they wanted to see the movie themselves (Bambi was a more acceptable children’s film), and I can’t vouch for the validity of this, but something must have rubbed off, even at that young age. Within a few years I was subscribing to Mad magazine; by the time I was in my teens I’d moved on to National Lampoon, Paul Krassner’s briefly revived The Realist, and R. Crumb, but I was also turning to more literary exemplars of black humor: Joseph Heller (my father owned a well-thumbed paperback copy of Catch-22), Terry Southern, and William Gaddis, as well as their ancestors Swift, Twain, West, and Céline .

Lucky I was to live in that time, because the values which this work instilled in me have stood me in good stead: a rejection of blind, moralizing authority; a healthy disrespect for pretension and arrogance; a preference for difficult and ugly truths over comforting and self-satisfying lies; and the bravery and courage to confront hypocritical authority, pretension, arrogance, and lies with creative, subversive, comic ridicule, preferably accompanied by a good stiff drink. Good lessons, I think, for me to pass along to my daughters, and it’s a joy to revisit these works again in the company of my own children. As Twain himself — speaking through Satan — wrote at the end of his life:

Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them — and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug, — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

And, as God Himself recently said,

Drunk, stoned, brilliant, and still dead

Last night my daughters (nine- and ten-years-old) did their father’s heart good by suddenly launching into the creation of some of the most nihilistic, in-bad-taste, NSFW comics I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. At first I thought that the girls had gotten into my R. Crumb collections, but a quick reconnoiter of the bookshelves revealed that they’d been untouched. Larded with references to popular culture (even Dr. Phil and Juul), their comics exhibited the frenzied, id-driven coarseness and humor that I’ve enjoyed since I was their age, poring over the pages of Mad magazine. Truly, they are their father’s children. Their mother viewed the comics with some dismay, but unfortunately my genes seem to have ranked supreme in the sense-of-humor department.

Interesting that these traits should appear now, as they’re just on the cusp of puberty and adolescence, but there is a time for everything. It reminded me of the below essay that first appeared here in 2017; I will follow up with additional notes, inspired by the work of my own darling satirists, in the next few days.

It appears that outrage-fatigue is beginning to affect American comedians as well as everybody else. After a few months of the Trump administration, SNL, after a promising start, is recycling rapidly aging caricatures of Trump and figures in his administration as they used to recycle sketches like “The Coneheads” and “The Bees,” each iteration becoming more tired; even John Oliver, in the first episode of the latest season of his otherwise laudable investigative-satire program Last Week Tonight, seems a little lost.

Earlier this week Marilyn and I turned to Netflix to watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Douglas Tirola’s 2015 documentary about the late National Lampoon magazine, which flourished in the 1970s before declining to a state at which, currently, it’s the clearing house for a brand name that can be rented then attached to pretty much anything or anyone that has the money to purchase it. During its glory years — 1970 to 1975, more or less — it was one of the best-selling magazines in the nation. Deliberately positioned as a humor magazine to bridge the MAD Magazine-New Yorker age gap, it was always a commercial endeavor, but the stars so aligned that it also proved an outlet for some of the best, most outrageous literary parodists and satirists of post-Kennedy America. Its quick demise begs the question: What happened in the first place?

Some satire, like Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, lasts, and some doesn’t. “Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” as the decidedly non-satiric American comic playwright George S. Kaufman once put it. Well, the bad sort closes, but obviously there are exceptions, and that’s because although most satire is directed at corrupt contemporary targets that are rapidly lost in the midst of time, those targets stand in as metonyms for the deeper corruptions of the human heart. The British/French military and political conflict that Swift parodies in the first book of Gulliver stands in for the arrogance and foolishness of nation-states; the attack on Leibniz’s philosophy which sparked Candide is also an attack on sentimental optimism itself; and Twain’s satire of race relations and clannish feuding in the pre-Civil War America of Huckleberry Finn is now read as a satiric exploration of the American ideals of democracy and community themselves. Eighteenth-century European politics, a philosophical dispute from the same century, and the socioeconomic situation of the American South in the 1830s have all become somewhat academic, but not the observations about the human condition that these satirists drew from these local circumstances.

The triumvirate of satirists who steered National Lampoon through its first five years — Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard, and Michael O’Donoghue — were, first and foremost, literary satirists. Kenney’s influences included Evelyn Waugh, James Thurber, and Ronald Firbank (the last also a major influence on British playwright Joe Orton); Beard decided to devote his career to literary humor after his exposure to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, perhaps the greatest of post-war American Menippean satires; O’Donoghue’s background was extraordinarily wide-ranging as a habitue of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though he seems to have been most inspired by the novels of Terry Southern and William S. Burroughs. The best of the short prose essays and other material that appeared in National Lampoon from those years, and the level of baroque style and parody, easily rank with and outshine those of Thurber, Robert Benchley, and S.J. Perelman in their heyday, and unlike the pieces by Woody Allen and others in the New Yorker (however accomplished and of permanent value as some of these are), their work was tinged with the fire of outrage and a keen anarchic sense of the fraudulence of the time and the heart. Even more than Twain, their immediate satiric ancestor was Nathanael West, whose apocalyptic vision of an urbanized, trivia-besodden America in the 1930s, especially in the revelatory riot that closes The Day of the Locust, offered no hope or respite from the corruptions of the spirit.

The Lampoon‘s best work exemplifies all this. Kenney’s spot-on parody of Che Guevara’s diaries reveals the blind, insipid, delusional idealism at the heart of political revolution (especially in an age of celebrity); O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” is a masterful deconstruction of the savagery and sentimentality that exist simultaneously at the heart of American culture; and Henry Beard’s “Law of the Jungle” is a genuinely astonishing satire not only of the law but also of the human race’s relationship to the natural world. Later, the best movies under the Lampoon banner also transcended their initial subjects. Animal House (co-written by Kenney) explored the disasters that occur when naivete meets reality, Vacation laid bare the anxieties that the commodification of leisure time produces. (I apologize for all this, and thoroughly deserve some lampooning of my own for these interpretations for what are, after all, just barely grown-up versions of the funny pages.)

In 1975 or so, O’Donoghue left the National Lampoon for what he thought were the greener pastures of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which debuted in that year. Kenney and Beard were, in a way, luckier. Their friend Rob Hoffman in negotiating their contacts in 1970 schemed to include a clause in which publisher Matty Simmons could buy out their contacts based on a multiple of the percentage of the magazine’s value. Kenney and Beard opted to take the buyout, which made them multi-millionaires before they were 30. Kenney went Hollywood and, unable to negotiate the demands and successes of fame, died in a fall from a Hawaiian lookout (whether he jumped, slipped, or was pushed remains a matter of conjecture) in 1980; Beard retired into private life, still writing, and refused to discuss his career with the magazine until he resurfaced in Tirola’s documentary four decades later; the magazine itself had a few more good if not great years under the supervision of Tony Hendra, P.J. O’Rourke and others before its precipitous decline.

Ironically, the reasons for its decline are more numerous than the reasons for its success. By 1975 the political scene in America was becoming more fractured and polarized, and students were increasingly irritated to be told by a bunch of white, upper-middle-class Ivy League elitists that their ideals were illusory at best (while several women were regular contributors to the magazine, including Anne Beatts, Emily Prager, and Shary Flenniken, the skin color in staff photographs of the time is as white as the driven snow); the sophomoric-tastelessness-for-the-sake-of-sophomoric-tastelessness that was always a feature of the magazine began to overtake the more ambitious satires as publisher Simmons strove to drive profits higher and higher; magazine circulations themselves became locked in a struggle against the growth of electronic media. And perhaps the most influential of early Lampoon staffers, Michael O’Donoghue, found that he was unable to tailor his own dark apocalyptic vision to the requirements of the entertainment industry — and O’Donoghue desperately sought commercial success — before his own early death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 54.

So what of literary satire in the Trump age, given the great achievements of American satire in the half-century before it? Are irony and satire dead — has the future become so dark that we can’t joke about it any more? The same things were said after the Nixon administration, after 9/11, and we’re no closer to a response now than we were then. I doubt there’s an answer in the small shelf of books (and a documentary) now devoted to the history of the Lampoon, its influence, and its offshoots. (These include Tony Hendra’s still-indispensable Going Too Far, Ellin Stein’s That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, and Josh Karp’s biography of Kenney, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which is now being adapted into a film for Netflix.) But inspiration can still be sought in the best of its achievements, even if where we go from here is still something of a mystery.